Building 'Pop City': Violet Ultraviolet On New Album And Literary Influences

May 6, 2016

What do Flannery O'Connor, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Ulysses and State Treasurer Beth Pearce have in common? They're all referenced on the new record from Burlington-based band Violet Ultraviolet.

Songwriter Jake Brennan spoke with VPR about the new album Pop City and the inspirations behind it.

On the origins of Violet Ultraviolet:

"Violet Ultraviolet started after my old band Shelly Shredder broke up," says Brennan. "It started out as a recording project with me and Rob Voland, who is the bass player from Shelly Shredder. And since then it's been different lineups playing live songs. Most recently, the last recording project was me and Ryan Power."

On his musical influences:

"For a while, I decided I was always going to describe my music as being influenced by like Neil Young meets Sonic Youth because I don't think they too sound too similar."

"And it feels like those are the two worlds that I'm kind of pulling from," says Brennan. "A heavy emphasis on songwriting, I always write with an acoustic guitar, but then a lot of interest in trying to manipulate sounds and be loud and be improvisational."

On the title track "Pop City":

"When I wrote this song on an acoustic guitar I thought it was a really poppy sounding song," he says. "I just thought it had pop hooks and I was almost embarrassed when I was going to play it for the band at the time. I was like, this song ... is a little bit much. And so I named it "Pop City" as a joke, like a jab at the song."

"I was listening to these Steely Dan tapes I borrowed from Ryan [Power]. I was listening to the Carpenters, I was listening to Hall & Oates, like this weird, cheesy seventies music," Brennan says. "Then it sort of felt like it was an odd collection of songs when we started the sessions and it kind of felt like Ryan and I were building this place for these songs to live."

"When I look back on the project now it's like, there were the songs, we didn't really know what to do with them and as this sound came together was like the feel we've built pop city," says Brennan. "We built the place where these songs made sense."

On finding inspiration: 

"The other influence on the album, coming more from a songwriting perspective is from books," says Brennan. "I read a lot and I was reading quite a bit when I was writing all these songs. And one of the things that helped these songs come to life for me was inserting all these themes and images from books that I was reading at the time."

Jake Brennan, right, worked with recording engineer and musician Ryan Power for over two years on 'Pop City.'
Credit courtesy of Jake Brennan

"There's a few different songs where I take the perspective of a character from a book or there's images from books that pop up," Brennan said. 

"I was driving to work, I was listening to VPR and there was an interview with Karen Russell. She'd just came out with her book Vampires in the Lemon Grove and I love everything she's talking about. I'd never heard of her, so I got the book and read it and the last song on the album is called 'Lemon Grove.'"

On the song "Low Tide":

"The image in my mind for that song is kind of like a grey day at the beach. You know, empty beach, on the sand looking out at the water. That scene, that image in my mind is the same image I have for the end of Infinite Jest, which is a reference to the third chapter in Ulysses."

On "Stroke Of Good Fortune":

"'Stroke Of Good Fortune' was that the earliest song written for the album. It was written close to the end of when Shelley Shredder was breaking up," says Brennan. "There's a reference to 'me and Beth' in the song. That's back from when I was working with Beth Pearce, the state treasurer. That was a funny thing that took over my life for a little while." 

"The title, 'Stroke Of Good Fortune' comes from a short story by Flannery O'Connor, so there's references in the song to that short story."

Violet Ultraviolet's new album, Pop City will be out soon. The band is performing at VPR's Live From The Fort Showcase at the Waking Windows Music Festival May 7.